What has eight dancing chimney sweeps, seven dancing dwarfs, a whole flock of giant butterflies and a broom that dances with two buckets of water?
The answer will be revealed tonight when 28 violinists poise their right elbows, maestro Bo Ayars' baton swoops downward and the opening notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star" sweep across the audience in Capital Centre. All these attractions, plus a duck trying to play the trombone, are part of the Disney Symphonic Spectacular, which will play for two evenings at the home of the Caps and the Bullets.
In an arena more noted for rock groups than for classical music, the National Symphony Orchestra will give its all to "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and the Mickey Mouse Club marching song. Also on stage will be Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Pinocchio, Lewis Carroll's Alice (riding on the shoulders of Tweedledum and Tweedledee), Donald Duck (trying to be a musician on various instruments) and Pluto (pulling Donald offstage with the kind of hook that used to be used on the old amateur-hour shows).
Interspersed with the Disney material will be more or less condensed versions of three colorful musical classics: Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite, Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" and Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," all conducted by NSO's Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor Fabio Mechetti.
This is the NSO's first venture into the athletic environment of Capital Centre, and nobody seems to remember whether it has played before in Prince George's County. The temporary alliance of the National Symphony with Mickey Mouse and Company has provoked animated discussion at the Kennedy Center, where the orchestra usually hangs out, but Abe Pollin, proprietor of Capital Centre, almost breaks into song when he talks about it.
"I have been trying for 10 years to get the National Symphony here," he says. "One of the great joys of having built this building is to see families coming out here to have some good, clean fun . . . It's not a financial bonanza for either of us; I just hope we'll break even. But I hope to expose the National Symphony to audiences who have never seen them, particularly young folks who are going to be enthralled with the Disney characters."
Pollin says he would like "to have a regular series of concerts here every summer and expose young people to classical music."
Among the rank and file at the NSO, the event is getting mixed previews. "They're going for the bucks," says one of the players. "We were just hired for the show," says a staff member.
But NSO Executive Director Stephen Klein (whom Pollin praises for his "flexibility and vision") is enthusiastic. "We're reaching out for new audiences," he says.
There is no reason all three can't be right. Pollin points out that "We have 4 million people within 40 minutes' drive time of the Capital Centre, and most of them don't go to the Kennedy Center."
Disney spokesmen are hailing the new extravaganza as a revolutionary venture into fine arts, but this underestimates what was done with classical music in animated cartoons of the '30s and '40s. Look at any of the vintage cartoons of the era (not only Disney but the aptly named Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies) and you usually hear classical music -- Liszt, Wagner, Rossini, Tchaikovsky or even Beethoven -- in the sound track. In that era, you would also have heard Rossini at the beginning and Liszt at the end of the old "Lone Ranger" radio program. The reason was simple: Classical music was out of copyright and free. A sound track by Dimitri Tiomkin would have bankrupted most of the old cartoon studios, which often lived on the edge of financial disaster, but Beethoven could be had for the asking.
As a result, a generation of kids grew up knowing and loving some of the more energetic passages of the classics without even realizing it, because they were background for two-dimensional figures falling off cliffs, bopping one another on the head or engaging in wild chase scenes. Sometimes, years later, a former child attending a concert would hear a Rimsky-Korsakov piece, for example, and only then recognize it as a passage from an old cartoon or radio show.
Nobody used the classics more thoroughly than Disney, who made music and movie history with his "Fantasia" -- in effect, a concert conducted by Leopold Stokowski and illustrated by the Disney company. It undoubtedly gave millions of movie fans their first hearing of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and enduring visual images associated with Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony, Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" and Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The three classical selections Mechetti will conduct were used in the "Fantasia" sound track. sk,1
In the past two or three decades, the Disney studio may have drifted away from musical classics and daring experiments, but in its new live extravaganza it is recalling a tradition.
"I was moved by 'Fantasia,' and I think a lot of kids were," says Klein. "For many kids, Disney offered the first opportunity to hear classical music."
Klein sees the Capital Centre venture as a part of the orchestra's outreach program, developing new audiences. "We're reaching out to families," he says, "as we do in our outdoor concerts at the Capitol. Did you see all the parents who brought their kids on the Fourth of July? It was unbelievable."
He is also interested in Capital Centre as a possible place for future NSO performances. "We have not played at all, to my knowledge, in that part of the D.C. metropolitan area, and I think we have an obligation to get around. We play at the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap and the Capitol. This is another audience, another group of people who I hope will come and love our work."
One Washingtonian who already loves the Disney extravaganza is Ayars, a McLean resident who already has conducted the show (reportedly for wildly enthusiastic audiences) in Dallas and Nashville.
"I like working with the Disney people," he says. "All of us are still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up."
Ayars has a job that takes him all over the map, conducting for Streisand and Liberace in Las Vegas and for the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall, but he is specially excited about the Capital Centre performance because he can take his two children to see him working with Mickey, Donald and Goofy. He has only one mental reservation: "I just hope my 3-year-old doesn't yell, 'Oh, there's Daddy.' He did that last Christmas at Radio City."